One of the favorite gospel songs sung in the rural Tennessee churches where I have pastored for many years is “When We All Get to Heaven”. But is everyone who sings this song going to heaven? Is everyone who has at one time or another called out “Lord, Lord” going to heaven? There are many who think that because they have done this little deal with Jesus or had a little talk with Him at same time or another, that they are going to heaven. Is this opinion justified? Let us listen to the words of Jesus here to find out.
Exposition of the Text
We are immediately met with a great challenge when Jesus says that not everyone who says “Lord, Lord” will enter into God’s kingdom. “Not everyone” means that some will, but others will not. Of course, and true disciple of Jesus is going to call on the name of the Lord. But there are those who are not His sheep that also will say “Lord, Lord”. This means, that simply saying “Lord” is not a litmus test that determines whether one is truly a Christian or not.
The litmus test which separates the true disciples of Jesus from the false one is doing the will of the heavenly Father. This means that the true disciples who hear the words of Jesus and puts them into practice are those who have entered through the strait gate onto the road to heaven. This implies that the others did not do the Father’s will.
Jesus anticipates the objections of the false disciples. They will name the great works they did. And they did these great works in the name of the Lord. They prophesied in His name. They cast out demons in His name, as well as many other works. Is not doing things like feeding the poor and visiting and caring of the sick doing the work of God? Does not Jesus in Matthew 25 commend His true disciples for these things followed by bidding them to “enter into the joy of the Lord”. So why should these false disciples be excluded from those who are doing God’s will when they are doing the same things that Jesus commends His sheep for? Perhaps their works were even greater in magnitude than the true disciples.
This indeed should trouble us, because on the surface it makes God seem unfair. Our natural tendency is to trust in our own good works. Many think like the ancient Egyptians that the good works and bad works are put on a balance at the last judgment. So long as the good outweighs the bad, all is well.
Others would point out the words “do the will of the Heavenly Father” here as showing that works do indeed count before God. They would say that Jesus wants more than empty words, or if I can put it into the words of James, “faith without works”. It is very easy to build a case for faith and works as necessary to salvation. It is simply our fallen nature that clings to this idea.
However, it is dangerous to take texts out of context. This is because Jesus immediately shows that works do not save any more than empty words. So it should seem apparent that Jesus must have something else in mind here, or else we would have a contradiction here.
The true disciple does indeed demonstrate His faith by his works. This is clearly Scriptural. But the Scripture is equally clear that we are saved by grace through faith alone. This can only be resolved when we realize that good works flow from faith and not the other way around. Even faith is a gift. It comes from grace, as Paul says in Ephesians 2. And grace is a gift from God rather than the wages paid for good work. Paul also says that He who has begun a good work in you will bring it to perfection in the day of Jesus Christ.
So when we compare Scripture with Scripture, we can see that there is no contradiction in Jesus’ words here. Rather we must probe further into what “doing the will of the Heavenly Father” means here. Surely it means something different than empty flattery or the quantity of “good” works done. Perhaps we need to examine motivation here. When we do, the difference between the true and false disciple becomes clearer. According the Westminster-Shorter Catechism, the chief purpose of man is first of all to “glorify God”. So the true disciple of Jesus is motivated to glorify God in all they do. They are not interested in pointing to themselves. In fact in Matthew 25, they are surprised when they are commended at the Last Day and bid to enter the Kingdom. Jesus answers their surprise by saying “Because you have done this to the least of these, my brethren, you have done it to me.”
Now when we examine the false disciples who will not enter the Kingdom, they are convicted by the first three words they utter: “Did not WE”. Notice here that they begin with themselves. Their interest is not in glorifying God, but rather bringing attention to themselves. We have already seen in the good works of the Pharisees, their almsgiving, their prayer, and their fasting, was not done to glorify God but rather to receive glory from men. Jesus told them that they had already received their reward which is temporary. But, unless they repented, they were going to miss out on the second half of the statement in the catechism which is “and enjoy Him forever”.
So it should be seen at this point that the one who does “the will of the Heavenly Father” is the one whose motivation is to glorify God in all he or she does. The true disciple realizes also that they have been saved solely by God’s grace and not by any merit of one’s own. Even the righteousness the believer has is the righteousness imputed by Jesus Himself. This is the righteousness that exceeds that of the Scribes and the Pharisees who trusted in their own righteousness before God. Jesus is the only one who perfectly did God will and fulfilled every jot and tittle of Scripture. His righteousness becomes a gift through faith in Jesus Christ.
Now when we examine ourselves, we should despair of ourselves. How many times have we done things from improper motivations? Even though we said we were doing these things in the Lord’s name, our hearts smite us because we know we did them to draw attention to ourselves. We can think of those testimonies when someone confesses how the Lord delivered them from drugs or something else. It has the appearance of giving God credit for the great deliverance, but much of the time is spent on the details of all the great crimes he or she had committed. Then follows the words of how they decided to turn and follow Jesus. The attention is on the self and not the glory of God. Instead of bringing God the glory, testimonies like these cause division in the church. Does God love the great sinner more than the common sinner? What about those who God has rescued from a more shallow pit? What about those who were raised in the church and never strayed? Here I am not talking about the older brother of the prodigal because he might physically been at home, but was far from God in his heart. I am talking about the man or woman who stayed home, who confessed Jesus as Savior in the church at an early age and never strayed. Yet one would think that their testimony is of lesser count than the open prodigal.
We should examine further the attitude of the prodigal. Jesus recounts to some detail what this prodigal had done, although not to the extraordinary detail that many of those selling their books and making large speaking fees bragging about their conversion do. Here was truly a wretched individual. Yet when he rehearses what he is going to say to his father, he does not elaborate his sin. He simply is going to admit his unworthiness and plead to be made a servant. This man had nothing to brag about. He simply admitted he was a sinner in need of grace.
In the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, the Pharisee boasts while standing before God of all the things he was or was not. The Publican does not list his sine. He simply falls prostrate before God and says “Be merciful to me a sinner”. This is something that the true believer who has been justified realizes and simply confesses. This is the one who is justified before God. Whether one is the sinner who stayed home or the one who strayed and returned from the depth of Satan, the confession is the same.
So when we despair of ourselves and wonder about the motives of our heart, we worry whether there is any hope for us. In many ways, this can be a good thing if it drives us to the Jesus and the throne of His grace. One of the great teachings that came from the Protestant Reformation is that the church is “semper reformanda” which means in constant reformation. This is true enough for us as individuals also. Luther dealt with the dilemma of motivation by saying that we are the same time justified and sinners. We constantly cry out with Paul “O wretched man that I am! Who will save me from this body of death?” then the answer comes from Heaven: “Thanks be to Jesus Christ our Lord!” We then can know that we are no longer under condemnation because we are in Christ Jesus. Thanks be to God for His inestimable gift!